Crashes prompt CAA to get tough


Aviation safety bosses recommend fast-tracked changes to training rules for Robinson helicopter pilots in the wake of fatal crashes involving Queenstowners.

New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority wants all pilots and instructors who use R22, R44 and R66 choppers to be required to undergo specific safety training.

It’s also recommending doubling the minimum flying time to 20 hours before a first solo flight.

“The CAA is of the view that given the number of accidents involving this aircraft type, that some changes are required to its regulatory oversight,” a CAA spokesman says.

But one of the world’s leading Robinson instructors, Wanaka Helicopters boss Simon Spencer-Bower, says the majority of operators already meet the standards recommended.

The CAA’s review was sparked by a 2014 Transport Accident Investigation Commission (TAIC) report into a fatal R22 crash in April, 2011, killing Queenstown student pilot Marcus Hoogvliet, 21, and Wanaka Helicopters instructor Graham Stott, 31, at Mount Aspiring National Park.

Then, in November 2012, Wakatipu Flying Club chief instructor Julianne Kramer died when the private R22 she was flying solo crashed in the Cardrona Valley.

Spencer-Bower trained both Stott and Kramer.

He says he and many other operators already provide the robust Robinson factory-approved – or equivalent - safety awareness training.

This is about the CAA formalising it, he says, and not wanting to appear to have inferior safety standards to other countries.

“Everyone is trying to wrap each other in cotton wool these days, and not be accountable, and this is how this thing has reared its head,” Spencer-Bower says.

“I think there is a place for more emphasis to put on it though, so everyone’s reading from the same hymn book across the country,” he says. “Anything that improves safety is great.”

Spencer-Bower says the helicopters themselves are safe.

“People think this is a dangerous little helicopter and if you fly one you’re liable to crash and die, which is a whole lot of rubbish,” he says.

“It’s probably the most reliable helicopter that’s ever been invented.

“But it’s like boats, you don’t take a dinghy out into the Southern Ocean.

“So it’s about education and making people realise what the limitations are, that’s what training is all about.”

Kramer, also known as Julian, logged more than 9000 hours in fixed wing aircraft but had limited helicopter experience.

The TAIC investigation into both crashes found the aircraft broke up in-flight with the main rotor blades striking the tail.

They were flying near their operational limits - one heavy and high, one fast - and appeared to encounter high winds, causing turbulence.

The accidents brought into question the use of Robinsons in alpine environments.

Kramer’s father, Henry Kramer, says: “It’s extremely difficult to say what should be done.

“Some Robinson accidents happen with very experienced instructors and much of this training seems to be in place already, so I don’t know if it’ll help.

“Changing conditions, wind direction and speed, causing turbulence while Julian was flying at speed, seemed to be the issue.”

TAIC is investigating three other fatal crashes involving Robinson helicopters.

They include the R44 crash in Lochy Valley, south-west of Queenstown, in February which killed Queenstowner James Patterson-Gardner - son of Over the Top helicopter firm owner Louisa ‘Choppy’ Patterson - and Wanaka’s Stephen Combe, 42.

The results of those investigations, and a private investigation into the cause of the Lochy Valley crash, are not yet known.

CAA recommends Robinson-approved, or equivalent, safety awareness training becomes mandatory for commercial pilots by July 2016 and private pilots by December 2016.

That’ll be fast-tracked with an order from CAA director Graeme Harris, rather than through the 18-month long ‘rule development programme’.

“The CAA believes that it needs to take action in the shorter term in the interests of aviation safety,” the document reads.

Aircraft operators have until May 22 to comment.